The Save: An oral history of Seattle Sounders goalkeeper Stefan Frei’s iconic stop against Toronto FC in 2016 MLS Cup

NOTE: This was a lead feature in March’s edition of Sounders Monthly. Our May rivalry edition of Sounders Monthly comes out on Saturday, May 6, and will be available free-of-charge at The NINETY, GuestLink Services locations, Soccer Celebration and Membership Central. You can also access it on the Sounders Mobile App.


It was a bone-chilling December night in Toronto featuring combative Lake Ontario winds funneling themselves through the heart of BMO Field. Gone were 90 minutes of scoreless soccer and fast-approaching was a penalty-kick finish to the 21st edition of the MLS Cup championship. Three minutes into the second frame of extra time, Swiss-born goalkeeper — and former Toronto FC draft pick — Stefan Frei was charged with making the save of all saves. The Save that catapulted Seattle to championship glory. The save that will forever be etched in the minds of the Sounders faithful. The save that for now, and potentially for all of eternity, will go down as the best save in MLS Cup history.

MIDFIELDER NICO LODEIRO (NL): When the ball was in the air, I imagined the worst because Stef was moving the other way, away from the ball. I started to assume that the ball was going in, and when I saw Stef’s hand get the ball out, it was like the soul came back into my body and the happiness returned when his savior hand appeared. It was incredible.

GOALKEEPER COACH TOM DUTRA (TD): It was a great cross that came in. I saw Jozy [Altidore] adjust his feet, get up, and just put the ball back where it came from and in that moment, I thought we were done. I’ve said over and over that we were finished in that moment and then out of nowhere I see Stef kind of get his feet moving in the right direction and just get a great push to make a save.

GOALKEEPER STEFAN FREI (SF): [I remember] it was them breaking down on the left side. Román [Torres] trying to step and then maybe [Toussaint] Ricketts — I think it was Ricketts, just having come off the bench — being a bit more snappy and [having a] bit more fuel in the tank, beats [Román] to it, goes around him, puts in a fairly innocent ball to be fair, far away from the goal, and then I shuffle my way over. Jozy looks like he’s almost under the ball, so [it’d be] pretty difficult for him to actually get high enough to get the ball somewhere down. That was the build-up to everything.

TORONTO FC FAN JOHNNY STANCATI FROM BMO FIELD (JS): I thought Ricketts did really well down the right wing on that play. I didn’t think he would get the cross in, but he managed to. It felt like the ball was in the air for the longest time.

SOUNDERS FC FAN NICHOLAUS BIELA FROM BMO FIELD (NB): From our angle in that moment, it looked like it was a sure goal because Altidore was streaking into the box and was the only one to jump into the air for an uncontested header. When Frei made the save and the ball was cleared, the section was literally bouncing and shaking from everyone jumping up and down.

SF: When Jozy gets his head on it, it was a bit of a, ‘Holy crap, you can’t give up on this.’ Sometimes you just get frozen. You see a lot of goalkeepers get frozen there, but for some reason I felt like it was an important moment and that that pushed me to go.

MIDFIELDER AND CAPTAIN OZZIE ALONSO (OA): I saw Jozy jumping to head the ball, but he didn’t head it that hard, so it gave Stef a little time to make that big save. For me, seeing it from behind, I thought it was a goal, but Stefan made a big save for us.

TD: I looked back at our administrator on the sidelines, Grant Clark, I look back at him and I said, ‘Holy smokes, we were done there and he just bailed us out!’

FORMER SOUNDERS DEFENDER AND CURRENT VICE PRESIDENT OF OPERATIONS TAYLOR GRAHAM: My ensuing train of thought was: That’s going over. Is that going over? Did that just cross the line? Did he really palm that from the upper corner? Please clear it, Román. Guys, push up your lines…What a save!

NL: After that save, where the ball appeared to be going into the net and the goalkeeper was elsewhere, the game was ending and if they didn’t score on that play, I said: The championship is ours.

JOURNALIST MATT PENTZ (MP): The immediate reaction [in the press box] was an audible gasp. At that point in the game, in extra time, people are kind of on deadline. A lot of people are half-paying attention, looking at their computers. Then there’s the gasp and people asking around if that really happened and then you look at the replay and there it was.

SF: After I made the save, I was like, ‘OK, let’s keep playing’ because the game keeps going on and then I think that Cristian [Roldan] gets fouled up-field and I think they played the replay of the header and save behind me and the whole stadium goes, ‘Eewwwpphhh.’ I look over to the bench, because sometimes you know I look over to my ’keeper coach to see if there’s anything you could have done different, look for like a thumbs up or thumbs down, and I see [assistant coach] Djimi Traore high-fiving our goalkeeper coach vigorously and so I was like, ‘OK, maybe I did something right.’ And then I guess they show the replay a second time and again the whole stadium goes, “Eewwwpphhh’. At that point I go, ‘OK, I must have done something right.’

NB: As play stopped, the stadium video board showed replays of the save, and we saw how Frei actually reached behind him to make the impossible possible. My seat was near the edge of the section, across the aisle from the Toronto fans. I glanced over to the Toronto section, making eye contact with a Toronto supporter and we exchanged mouth open, head-shaking wow reactions with one another.

NL: The truth is that the fans, when they see the ball going in and a hand appears from nowhere to get it out, I think it was a hard hit for the fans and for [Toronto FC] also. [For Toronto FC,] it was like ‘We have this game in the bag,’ and then the possibility suddenly disappears. At that same moment, we also get our confidence back. Obviously [it gave more confidence] to Stef going into the penalty kicks as well.

JS: It was shocking being right there and seeing the save. Looking back at it now, I don’t know how he got there. Watching the clip over and over again since that moment, it’s a little more realistic how he did it, but when I was watching in person, I didn’t think he was going to get there.

MP: It was the first time in the game where it felt like the Sounders might win it all, because they had really been run off the field for however long and it just kind of felt like they were holding on for dear life and that Toronto was eventually going to get them. But as soon as that play happened — it was such a momentous play, even Altidore after the game talked about how he thought it was in — I think it really sucked the life out of Toronto more than anything else and allowed the Sounders to get all the way to PKs.

 

TD: He had a good game the entire game. Everyone wants to go back to that save and say, ‘That was such an amazing save,’ but, really, Stef had a good game. He had a very good game. Best save I’ve ever seen in a final. It was unbelievable. Best save.

SF: You just kind of get the feeling when the extra time was over with teammates rushing towards you that their confidence in you was high. That feels good. That obviously builds your confidence even more. That’s what I love about being a goalkeeper is my job is to be able to help my teammates. That’s what I’m there for and you take a huge responsibility on your shoulders because most of the time stuff doesn’t go right, sh*t hits the fan, and you’re the goat or you’re the one to blame. But there are a few instances where you’re able to help your team out and that’s the best feeling in my opinion.

OA: After that save, he’s super excited, super confident, and he showed it in the PKs.

TD: As we went into penalties there, I said, ‘We’re too good to lose now, we’re too good to lose now, you’re [Stefan] too good to lose now. We’re going to win as a team’. I said that to the entire group, ‘We’re too good and we’re going to win’.

NL: It was a beautiful thing to witness and me, being across the field, I was able to get the perfect look of it. It was one of the best if not the best [save I’ve ever seen] because it was in a final and in the last minute of overtime and he saved the whole year, the whole tournament, with that save.

NB: I’m forever grateful for the Sounders for giving me a moment of joy that will put a smile on my face when I think back to it. That’s a gift that will be with me for the rest of my life. I’m Sounders ’til I die, indeed!

SOUNDERS FC FAN JULIE WUKELIC FROM THE WESTY SPORTS & SPIRITS IN SEATTLE: It was one of most exciting sporting viewing events I’ve ever been to. It felt like we were all one and focused on the task at hand. After we won, everyone was hugging, singing, crying and so, so happy. Unbelievable moment.

SF: I keep reminding people that this championship was a full team effort and that’s what I was there to do and that’s my job and some people are a bit more enthusiastic about it more than others. Some people want to kiss my tattoo. I appreciate all the love. Like I said, I view it as my job. It’s my pleasure that I was able to bring people some joy, but I want to be able to do it again. Now it’s time to find another dream. To find another dream to fulfill.

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